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What you need to know about the NFL's substance abuse policy

Pittsburgh Steelers Martavis Bryant is facing a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policies, get the details as to why it is four games, and not two.

Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

Jeremy Fowler of ESPN is reporting that WR Martavis Bryant's suspension is for marijuana use, the same substance at the root of teammate Le'Veon Bell's suspension.

NFL Policies Concerning Substances

If Fowler is right and Bryant's drug of choice was marijuana, his infraction falls under the substance abuse policy. The NFL's current policy on substance abuse includes improper use of prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, illegal drugs, and alcohol. The agreement prohibits the use, possession, and distribution of drugs such as cocaine, marijuana, opiates and opiods, MDMA, and PCP. Amphetamines also fall under this policy unless the player has a legitimate documented, legitimate need to treat a medical condition.

There is a separate policy for performance-enhancing substances, also agreed upon by the NFL and NFLPA in 2014. That agreement covers the use of anabolic and androgenic steroids, stimulants, human or animal growth hormones, and related substances. It also covers substances such as diuretics and agents that mask the presence of performance-enhancing drugs.

Testing Schedule

For both kinds of substances, players can also be disciplined for refusing to test, failing to test, or manipulating the specimen.

Under the substance abuse policy, players are tested:

  • Before they are hired with a new team. This includes testing of draft-eligible players at the scouting combines.
  • Preseason at least once between April 20 and August 9.
  • At regular, pre-determined intervals if a player is in an intervention program.
  • By agreement if the NFL team and the player agree to it as part of his contract and if there is a reason to request such testing.
Intervention Program
The intervention program is for players who have failed a drug test, have questionable behavior (arrests or psychological signs of substance abuse), or refer themselves. The intervention program has three stages.

Stage One

The medical director evaluates a player and comes up with a treatment plan for him at which point the player receives treatment through a clinician or facility. The player agrees to release information about his progress to the medical director. He is also subject to substance abuse testing.

A player can be in Stage One for up to 90 days. If stage one is completed successfully, the player is discharged. If not, he moves on to Stage Two.  The "if not" usually includes failed tests or noncompliance in treatment.

Violations during Stage One result in a fine.

Stage Two

Stage Two lasts for 24 months or two full seasons and is similar to Stage One in terms of the treatment plan, testing, and violation. During this stage, however, consequences are more severe. In addition to a fine, players with infractions during Stage Two face a four-game suspension.

Subsequent infractions result in a suspension of four to six games. These players also advance to Stage Three.

Players who complete Stage Two are discharged from the program and start over at Stage One if they have another violation, just like first-time offenders.

Stage Three

Stage Three, like the other two stages, involves complying with a treatment plan and submitting to unannounced drug tests. The consequences for violations during Stage Three are much more severe: The player faces a year-long ban from the NFL. If the first violation in Stage Three is for marijuana, the player receives a 10-game suspension instead of a year-long ban.

Interestingly, the NFL commissioner is in charge of reinstating players after their one-year bans.

Stage Three players can expect to stay at this level for the rest of their careers unless they are discharged at the discretion of the medical director.

Alcohol & Breaking the Law
Casual alcohol use is not prohibited unless it is part of a player's treatment plan.

Alcohol-related violations fall under the substance abuse policy when the player has broken the law. The first violation results in a two-game suspension, while subsequent violations result in an eight-game suspension. If a player breaks the law while under the influence of other substances, he will face a four-game suspension for the first infraction and then up to a 10-game suspension for subsequent infractions.


The reason the public doesn't hear about infractions until a suspension is announced is because of rules about confidentiality. Particularly in Stage One, where the only consequences are fines, there is no reason the public would ever know about the infraction. In fact, there are $500,000 fines for people who violate a player's confidentiality when it comes to information about his diagnosis, treatment, test results and participation in the program.

Changes in New Policy

This drug policy is relatively new. Under this CBA, punishments are more harsh for DUIs, while some punishments for marijuana use are lower (e.g. in Stage Three the first infraction for marijuana is now 10 games instead of a year). Also significant, player appeals of drug-related punishments are heard by a neutral arbitrator, not the Commissioner.

Martavis Bryant

What can we assume about Martavis Bryant?

1) He was in Stage Two. We know this since his suspension is 4-games

2) The Stage Two infraction means he could advance to Stage Three where he will face a 10-game suspension for his first marijuana infraction and a longer ban for subsequent violations. We do not know how long he has been in Stage Two.

3) Somebody released confidential information to the press ("the source" who told Fowler it was a marijuana infraction)